According to a study from the University of Iowa, there is a large gap between what physicians say they would do, and what they actually do after committing a medical error.

The survey of faculty physicians, resident physicians, and medical students, found that 97% would disclose a hypothetical medical error that resulted in prolonged patient treatment or discomfort and 93% would reveal the error if it caused disability or death to a patient.

Despite the high number of theoretically forthcoming doctors, 19% acknowledged having made a minor medical error and not disclosing it and 4% indicated having made a major error without disclosing it. The study also revealed that only 41% of respondents reported disclosing a minor medical error, and only 5% responded as having disclosed a major error.

The lead researcher said it seems unlikely that more than half of the physicians surveyed have never made a medical error in their careers and that it is fair to say that everyone “has made at least a minor error” at some point. He also said that it can be hard for doctors to accept that they have made mistakes, let alone admit them.

The survey revealed that physicians with more experience were more willing to disclose medical errors, suggesting that with increased clinical competence and confidence, doctors become more comfortable with error disclosure.

The survey results are published in the online version of the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The article is available online.